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...And Then There Was Light

By , Jefferson, OR
I think my name is William. Someone once said my last name was Blake but I never knew for sure. Even so, my last initial has always been “B”. “White Boy” is a common enough insult. Someone told me I should be proud of having that yelled at me. Believe me, I don’t ever feel proud, especially when Their faces are all screwed up in that frightening look of pure disgust and contempt as the acidic spit flies from Their lips as They scream it in my face. I don’t understand Their anger toward me. I don’t know what it is that I’ve done. I try so hard to please Them but They never are satisfied. Sometimes I cry myself to sleep, wondering what I could do to make up for whatever I’d done. It must have been bad…

I’m glad that I’m not alone. There are thirty of us living at the place They call the Plantation. The Sheds we sleep in are miserable. Since mine is shared with ten people, there’s barely enough room and occasionally there are fights over patches of dirt and straw to sleep on. It’s difficult to stretch out, especially when I’m sharing a holey blanket with little Ginny. One night I was so cold, I longed to drag the blanket from her little shoulders and take the blanket all for myself. It would have been so easy since Ginny wasn’t known to put up a fight. Even though I knew the blanket still wouldn’t have been sufficient enough to block the cold, I wanted to take it, to relieve myself even if it was just the smallest bit. Surely Ginny would understand. Maybe she’d thought the same thing at one time. I wonder if she imagined the shade of blue my lips would be when/if I awoke the next morning, she shrugging off the ragged blanket, her skin warm as she touched my cheek to see whether I was alive or not. But as these thoughts of utter cruelty were running through my mind, I began to notice rain on my face. There wasn’t a leak in the roof, though. I was crying. I didn’t take the blanket.

I think I’ve lived at the Plantation for seven or so years. I was bought and brought here by Them when I was five, so I think I’m twelve now. I can’t really tell, though. Time doesn’t matter much here. Each day is driven by fear that you’ll be whipped or worse, locked up in the Penalty Box.

I remember George… or was it Greg? No, it was George. Anyway, two years ago, George tried to escape the Plantation with Ginny who I think was his little sister. They’d just arrived and didn’t know that you don’t escape the Plantation. Ever. Impossible. They caught him just at the River and dragged him to the Penalty Box. I remember his face when they took Ginny to the whipping post and made him and the rest of us watch as the little girl was stripped to her underwear. I’d watched whippings before, but seeing her, this little girl with golden curls spilling down her forehead, the fearful look in her big blue eyes, the gasping terror of her mouth exposing the two missing front teeth, it was the most frightening thing I’d ever witnessed. George was screaming at the top of his lungs, screaming for Them to let her go, that he was responsible, she didn’t know what she was doing, she was a child, only a child. Nothing helped. Ten times. I’d never been whipped that many times. Never. Five at the most. Never ten. All I could do was stare as precious blood was shed from that lily.

After it was done, George was dragged away to the Penalty Box. I will always remember the moment he looked directly at me; the tears and pleading in his black eyes were enough to stop my heart. For days I could hear him screaming. I had no idea what tortures he was going through. I didn’t want to know, even when one day, the screams abruptly ended and all was silent. They made us clean Ginny up and take care of her. The day that George’s voice died, a part of Ginny died with him.

We all learned from George’s example: All that came of the idea of freedom was fear and death. No one tried to escape again.

***

It was the middle of July and especially hot. I was serving that day as an umbrella holder, cooling the Lady Tanya with shade even as I stood in the sun, my white skin boiling. I licked my blistered lips as I watched her take a sip of her lemonade. My arms were trembling but she only snapped, “Hold it steady! You’re getting sun on my feet.” I held it steady.

I didn’t notice Ginny enter the room until she was beside the Lady, refilling her glass of lemonade. Her blue eyes were carefully downcast, her shoulders hunched, head bowed, silent: the perfect picture of obedience. So I did not understand why the Lady accused Ginny of saying something. I blinked slowly, watching Ginny’s face for a reaction. Nothing. Cold. “No, ma’am.” “I think you said something. So tell me, what’d you just call me?” “Nothing, ma’am.” “I think you called me a n*****, am I right?” “No, ma’am.” The umbrella dipped a little and the Lady snapped a command at me. I was quick to react, fearing she’d include me. She sneered at Ginny, “You little white girl with your perfect hair and perfect teeth. Look at you now.” She grabbed Ginny’s arm and dragged her so she stood directly in front of the Lady. A second later there was a smacking sound. Ginny stumbled back, lifting her hand to her cheek. There was no reaction in her dead eyes. The Lady stood. “C’mon, white girl, where’s your defiance? Where’s your desire for freedom?” She gave her another backhanded slap on the other cheek. Ginny’s face was bright red and she was bleeding from where the Lady’s nail had cut her. Yet, still, she didn’t react. My throat worked as I tried to swallow, my eyes staring at Ginny, almost begging her to cry, to make a sound, anything that would show that she felt.

But the slapping and jeering weren’t the worst to come; the Lady got so angry that she grabbed Ginny by the arm and dragged her into the House. Without anyone to shade, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. My feet knew, though. They took me into the House, following behind the Lady to her rooms. Ginny had been thrown into a chair and the Lady stood behind her, a pair of scissors held in the air as if she were brandishing a sword. She then proceeded to sheer Ginny’s golden curls to the scalp like a sheep.

All I could do was stare, mouth gaping, my eyes filled with the image of Ginny sitting placidly as the Lady took her innocence. I didn’t understand how this could be worse than when Ginny had been whipped ten times. I didn’t understand Ginny’s resignation, her defeat. I didn’t understand why Ginny didn’t fight back. But then… I didn’t understand why I didn’t fight back.

“STOP!!!”

The word was out of my mouth before I could think. The Lady paused in her attack, letting fall a golden curl from her brown hand. She cocked her head as if she hadn’t quite heard me. Her eyes were narrowed slightly, lips perched as if considering what I’d just said. For a fleeting moment I wondered whether anyone had ever commanded her before, but I didn’t think it’d be such a great time to ask.

I was trembling as I waited for her to say something. Part of me was hoping she’d command me to go and do some menial job, anything to get away from this room and my own insolence; another part of me wanted her to scream at me, to yell insults in my face so I’d feel smothered as if I were the lowest form of being, as if I were doing something so wrong I’d never be forgiven and sent to Hell the second I died. Then, just when I was about to start groveling, Ginny turned her face toward me and for the first time in two years… I saw life.

I guess maybe it was my body that chose. Maybe it was my instincts. But with unanimous agreement, I sprang at the Lady, my fists meeting flesh, tearing hair, screaming at her, leaving nothing but a bloody, pulpy mess of her face. I didn’t know why I was crying. I thought I saw George. And he was crying. And Ginny was crying. And the Lady was crying. And all I felt was the fear. Knowing what would happen. I could hear them running up the stairs. Their feet were driven by uncertainty. Had anyone ever shown such violence, such defiance before?

I’m sure the room was a bloody mess. Me on the floor, straddling the woman as my blows landed again and again on her face. Ginny sitting half shorn in the chair, her golden curls pooled around her feet, soaked in the Lady’s blood. Red and gold was all I saw. Red, gold, and George’s tearful face as he screamed for Them to let Ginny go. Or maybe that was me. Yeah, it was me screaming this time…

***

I can’t remember what happened next. A light went out in my head and came on in a box so small I couldn’t stand or stretch my legs out. The walls were seamless and without windows. My heart was pounding so fast in my chest I was getting lightheaded and my stomach churned. I had to throw up. It ran down my legs, chunky, sticky, and warm. The feel and smell left me heaving dryly. I was afraid. I screamed and screamed. I pounded my arms against the walls. I could feel my skin bruising. I reached up and scratched my fingers but splinters stabbed me under my nails. I could hear their muffled laughter. I screamed.

For days, or weeks, or years, an eternity, I lived in that nightmare. Terror kept me wide awake. I screamed. I sobbed. I begged. “I’ll never do it again! I don’t want to die! Oh please, no, I don’t want to die!! I don’t want to be free!! Just let me out! LET ME OUT!!!” And all I heard was Their laughter.

I hoped I would die soon. Die just like George had. Die with my screams cut short so I’d be forgotten. Die so no one would remember. Die so I could no longer hear that humiliating laughter. Die so everyone wouldn’t remember my failure.

Red and gold and screaming were my dreams. The pit of death was so near, so tempting and all I wanted was to fall into it, to give in to that resignation of hopelessness. I wanted to die…

…and then there was light and Ginny’s face leaning over me. It was her eyes that told me I wasn’t dreaming. Her eyes were the promise of life.

“You’re free, William.”





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